Alex Hartley’s new exhibition After You Left features photography-based monochrome works depicting classic examples of mid-twentieth-century domestic architecture shrouded by foliage, a series of large-scale works combining sculptural and photographic elements in which the supports of plinth and frame are merged, and A Gentle Collapsing II – a major architectural intervention in the gallery’s waterside garden, which resembles an International Style domestic building apparently abandoned to the elements. Throughout, thoughts of modernism and its legacy, the Romantic idea of the ruin and the picturesque are conjured, along with themes of entropy and decay. Hartley discusses his ideas for the exhibition, his approaches to working across various media, new directions, and the enduring influences behind his work.
What is the inspiration for your new monochromatic works?
“The monochrome works come from the period when I was living in LA. In a way they grew out of the climbing work I made in 2003, LA Climbs, which applies the rules of a climber’s guidebook to a selection of Los Angeles architecture, describing routes over both the iconic and the ordinary. For that, I visited examples of modernist domestic architecture with my guide book, but you couldn’t really see the houses because of walls or fences or the foliage that had grown up around them. My crawling around in hedges to see the buildings became part of that project and I also ended up with this bank of photos of buildings seen through foliage. These started to tie in with both the outdoor work for this exhibition and the ideas for the entire show.”
Some of the buildings you’ve chosen are very famous…
“There are Neutra buildings, a couple of Eames Case Study Houses, a John Lautner building… For me, these are the finest examples of residential architecture. In that particular setting where modernism needs and relies on the landscape, it’s all about trying to open out the architecture in order to have the garden and all that outside space become part of the building. But, in doing so, you end up having to defend that building with the edges of your property, because otherwise you’re just living inside a glass box.”
How have you conveyed the idea of privacy and shifting boundaries in the work?
“The photographs are behind an acrylic surface and I’ve painted elements of trees and foliage on that surface, reinstating them in relation to the original photograph so the architecture is pushed into the background. There’s a feeling of depth but the images are faint and quite romantic, too.”
There’s a real painterliness to these new works.
“I’ve been drawing, painting. Some are very simple, some more complex. It takes the images away from being photographs but they’re not quite drawings or paintings, either. I enjoy the fact that they have this thickness, that they are still three-dimensional objects, almost sculptural, and yet they sit on the wall. That dialogue between two and three dimensions has run through all my work. I’m interested in the idea of the viewpoint, the frame and the boundary and in turn how that relates to architecture in nature, the manmade versus the natural landscape, and the failure of that.”
How do you deal with the subject of framing, viewpoints and and boundaries in your new, ostensibly sculptural works such as Arrangements in the Beyond and City of the Sun? They seem to be questioning categories of production.
“The sculptures contain suggestions or elements of architecture, so, for example, the plinth becomes both the support for the work and an architectural element in its own right that sits within the setting of a photograph depicting quite dense jungle foliage. The three-dimensional elements include lengths of metal, bits of RSJ, there’s even a piece of rock from Nowhereisland. But hopefully they remain quite mysterious. They’re a way of suggesting that architecture may have decayed into the landscape.”
A Gentle Collapsing II on display in the garden is on a very different scale. How does itrelate to the works on show in the gallery?
“It too is loosely based on bits of the Eames House, bits of Bauhaus. There are tropes of classic modernism – a sense of horizontality, the window, the staircase – that indicate a particular architectural language but with the planting it becomes like a painted scene. It’s the most theatrical thing I’ve ever made. It gave me a few palpitations when we started painting it up to look like a ruin but I think it really activates the setting. It has become explicitly about the relationship with a particular landscape.”
Should we think of it in terms of a Romantic ruin or a folly in landscape?
“Definitely. In the way that a folly in a landscape by, say, Capability Brown works by drawing your eye into the setting, this encourages you to look at different parts of the garden.”
The setting here is distinctly urban, though.
“Yes, but I also like to think about the East End, for example, where the Victorian pub gets left behind while the modern estate gets built around it, or those Chinese nail houses, where people refuse to move and everything gets built up around them. Part of what I like about this site is the development that has grown up around it.”
Seeing a modernist building in an advanced state of decay confuses our sense of time. Should we think of the work as a ruin of the future?
“Yes, but most pristine examples of classic modernism you see have been restored. I was fascinated when doing the research for this show that Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye had at one point been in a rather decrepit state, that it had been a real ruin and it had been rebuilt. I think it’s interesting where lots of these buildings are reconstructed to the point where none of the original material is left, yet they’re built exactly as Neutra or Le Corbusier envisioned.”
The title, A Gentle Collapsing II, could also imply other kinds of disorder. Do you want to leave the work open to interpretation?
“I’m trying to allude to ideas of decay, as well as the mysticism that comes from that. I was hoping it would leave a sense of melancholy with the viewer. But the work isn’t static. It’s constantly changing, and in fact has changed so much already since it was built. My previous work didn’t have quite this sense of narrative but it has become more and more about the narrative that the viewer builds into it.”
Interview: Martin Coomer
Portrait: Thierry Bal
Alex Hartley: After You Left, Victoria Miro Gallery I and Garden, 16 Wharf Road, London N1 7RW, 19 November - 16 December 2016.